Over Easter, Clare and I went to see Calvary, a new film by the creative team who produced The Guard, one of my favourite movies from the past decade. I’ve held off reviewing the film in part because The Guard looms over Calvary like a star athlete older sibling, setting an impossible standard while suggesting that, actually, bigger accomplishments are possible. Unable to shake that looming presence, I re-watched The Guard this weekend and having done so, the creative resemblance was reinforced while allowing me to pick on the material differences.
The premise of Calvary is that an adult who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child has decided to murder an innocent priest as a statement about the horror of institutionalised sexual abuse. He explains this to the priest in the opening scene, and while we’re kept in the dark as to his identity, it becomes apparent very quickly that his identity is no mystery to his victim. It’s a tough premise, and the film doesn’t ease the audience into it gently. As the murderer describes the abuse in detail, the camera stays focused on the priest, whose reaction is as shocked and confused as the audience’s. Alfred Hitchcock once described tension as an ordinary conversation next to a ticking bomb, and that’s a major strategy of Calvary. Each scene in the remainder of the film is coloured by a pervasive sense of doom.
At first I tried to watch the film as a mystery: who is the killer? There seemed to be a limited number of possibilities, but once it became apparent that the padre knew his would-be kiler, I realised that the film wasn’t interested in playing that kind of guessing-game with its audience. It isn’t trying to entice the audience with drips of information that can be pieced together. It’s point is that terrible things happen in these confined and secretive spaces, like the confessional, or behind closed doors in a home – villainy doesn’t advertise. I think part of the point is that it could be anyone he encounters from his little village, because any of them could easily have been the youthful victim of a priest protected by a veil of secrecy erected by the church. The point the killer is making is that the crime is arbitrary, a point for which the church has no rebuttal. It makes no more sense for an innocent priest to be killed than for an innocent child to be abused.
Structurally, the film plays out as a series of short vignettes – one per day of the week that the priest has left before he is killed. Each vignette presents the priest with a moral question – is adultery okay if it makes everyone involved happier? Is suicide morally defensible, and even if it is, what portion of guilt accrues to anyone who assists? What is remorse? This stops short of being didactic because of Brendan Gleeson’s masterful, soulful, and supremely human demeanour and handling of the material, but I certainly couldn’t help feeling a bit restless as these discussions reached the natural points of philosophical impasse. It’s frustrating in a way, because while they each have a narrative dimension created by the strong characterisation, they’re complex issues that the film could not resolve in a final way even if it wanted to… while yet remaining moral issues all too familiar to even the most casual student of either theology or philosophy. I suppose there’s a reason they’re the classic dilemmas, but that doesn’t make them good drama.
The film uses these moral expositions as a point of juxtaposition for the ultimate problem of whether the priest should go and meet his killer. Ultimately, he does, and this creates a central ambiguity in how to approach his character. He has advocated against suicide, arguing with his daughter that the real victims of suicide are those left behind: it’s more an abandonment of your loved ones than a crime against yourself. Yet, suicide is precisely what he commits – it’s a murder/suicide pact. Is this hypocrisy? Or is he trying to make a larger point about forgiveness? How compelling that is as a question depends on how far you can buy into the human beings portrayed on screen.
Ultimately, these questions of religion and philosophy are a barrier for me, rather than an interesting conundrum. The characters are all submerged and sublimated into their functions as exponents for the moral problems facing a parish priest. The argument the film makes is that the Catholic Church should collectively fall on their swords for their sins. It’s a well-made argument, wonderfully shot, wonderfully acted, but for me, it’s philosophical musings are just too blunt. For example, near the end of the film, Gleeson confronts his 2IC, telling him that he’s a terrible priest because he lacks integrity. This point had already been well and truly made by the fiction, so having a character inside the fiction spell it out in case the audience missed it was just too far for me.
If you break down the plot of The Guard, it’s a completely ordinary story of a wise-cracking cop on the trail of drug dealers. What I loved about The Guard was that it transcended its genre by constantly skewing accepted conventions, reinterpreting them to humanise its characters. One key strategy they used was the banter of the villains. They debate philosophy and offer a commentary on their lives. My favourite scene is where the pay-off is made to the constabulary. When asked whether the money’s all there, the crook is incredulous: what would be the point in under-paying on a bribe? It would defeat the whole point. Their philosophising works as a commentary on the action, but in Calvary this kind of banter replaces the action. The impending murder hovers suggestively, but in the absence of any definite action, the debating largely must stand on its own terms and for me it just didn’t.
I gave the film 8/10 on IMDB, the same as I gave the Lego Movie after my first viewing. I rate films on the basis of an emotional response – did I like it, would I watch it again, would I recommend it to others. The Lego Movie was at the very top end of lightweight entertainment, a distracting frenetic joy-ride of a movie, completely trivial. It was blighted by what is effectively a bit of carelessness around gender (albeit, carelessness symptomatic of a massive problem in our society). Calvary‘s not doing much better, if at all. There are two women, one a suicidal flapper, and one an unhappy wife taking her domestic abuse in stride. I suspect a proper feminist reading would rip both films to shreds. All-inclusive, Calvary is the better movie; challenging and humane. Very soon nobody will ever remember having watched The Lego Movie, but Calvary is a film that’ll stuck with us, nibbling away.
My experience of watching Calvary compared to watching The Guard is one of watching the tricks and tactics that elevated a genre piece into something really interesting fall flat without the spine of genre. I suspect that if your inclination is the reverse, then you’ll have the reverse experience.